Russia is pulling away from its relationship with embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and withdrawing key personnel from Damascus, the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported Sunday, citing senior Gulf and Western officials.
"The Kremlin has begun to turn away from the regime," the newspaper said.
The report also quoted Syrian opposition sources as saying that Hezbollah and Iranian military experts have left Assad’s war room in Damascus, along with Russian experts.
There have been increasing signs in recent days that the Assad regime is disintegrating, four years into the civil war that has engulfed Syria. Last week, the Syrian president lost control of another province, which comes on the heels of previous reports that Islamic State already controls more than 50% of the country.
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According to the same Gulf and Western sources, the change in the Russian position takes place against the backdrop of negotiations between the Gulf states and Moscow, a Russian response to economic sanctions imposed on it due to the war in Ukraine.
Syrian opposition sources told Asharq that Russia has evacuated 100 of its senior officials and their families from Syria via the airport in Latakia. They said that those leaving include experts who worked in the war room in Damascus, along with the Iranian experts and Hezbollah officials. According to the report, they have not been replaced.
On Thursday, Russia confirmed that an Ilyushin II-76 aircraft took 66 Syrian nationals from Latakia to Moscow airport, as well as a number of citizens from other countries, and at the same time delivered humanitarian aid to the war-torn country. Russia has remained silent on removal of the military experts.
According to Asharq al-Awsat, Russia has in the last three months also cut down the number of employees at its embassy in Damascus, leaving only essential staff. Opposition forces have also claimed that Russia has not been abiding by the maintenance contracts with Syria for the Sukhoi aircraft, leading to a rare visit to Tehran last month by Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who was forced to ask Iran to intervene with Russia on this matter.
The newspaper, which is notably supportive of the Saudi regime, also quoted an apparently surprising response by the head of the Russian delegation at a meeting last month, when asked by the Western Europe security chiefs for Moscow’s perspective on Syria’s future.
"What matters to Russia is maintaining its strategic interests and ensuring the future of the minorities, the unity of Syria and the struggle against extremists," the delegation chief said. Western diplomatic sources at the meeting said the unprecedented statement brings to an ends years of the Russian official line that there is no alternative to Assad.
At the same time, there have been growing Arab media reports of a more serious dialogue than ever before between Russia and the United States on an agreement regarding the crisis in Syria. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar quoted diplomatic sources in Geneva on Sunday as saying that the two sides are seeking an arrangement that will take into account the interests of regional and international parties, in particular Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states.
On Thursday, senior diplomatic sources told Al-Hayat that there has been a noticeable change in the Russian position toward Syria that Moscow is for the first time willing to discuss with the Americans the exact details of a transition period for the country, and even raise the names of individual military and political officials to oversee it.
Another sign of Assad’s difficulties comes from the Turkish news agency Anatolia, which cited opposition sources as saying that after four years of war, the regime controls less than 8% percent of the country’s oil and gas fields, while Islamic State controls more than 80% percent.